During times of crisis, people find comfort in many places. Some of us bury our noses in work; others turn to the absurd escapism of reality TV. For Jazmine Reed-Clark, a podcast host and career coach living in Dallas, comfort came in the form of a citrine healing crystal. “When I first got it and put it on my desk, I was going through a revolving door of financial opportunity,” she says. The crystal, it seemed, had triggered a series of windfalls. “Money coming left and right. It kinda freaked me out a bit.”
When the pandemic hit last March, Reed-Clark felt the way we all did: anxious, distressed, uneasy. As the year went on, things got worse. She had quit her job right before the pandemic started, which led to bickering more often with her husband. And the racial reckoning that followed later that year became a constant reminder of the trauma she experienced as a Black woman. “I got far more into astrology, crystals, and angel numbers,” a type of numerology where people might see repeating numbers in their day-to-day lives, Reed-Clark says. She wasn’t sure how to cope with all the uncertainty around her. “I didn’t have history to turn to for answers,” she says. “I had mysticism.” In a chaotic world, her spiritual practice offered guidance and comfort.
Millennials like Reed-Clark are part of a growing cohort of Americans who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” Pew reports six in 10 Americans believe in a New Age concept, like reincarnation, astrology, psychics, and “the presence of spiritual energy in physical objects like mountains or trees.” And since the pandemic, astrologers and tarot readers have seen an increase in business. Last May, The New York Times reported that traffic to some astrology sites had increased—one site, Dazed Digital, saw a 22 percent increase in horoscope-related traffic from the previous quarter. Later that month, Bloomberg reported that the market for gems and healing crystals—amethyst, rose quartz, tourmaline—was beginning to outpace the diamond market. In August, a handful of baby astrology books were published.
I didn’t have history to turn to for answers, I had mysticism.
It’s not surprising that mysticism has exploded in popularity over the past year. Our normal ways of decision-making haven’t been working out too well. If you’ve lost a job, it’s not easy to simply get a new one during the worst economic downturn since the recession. And the pandemic has also revealed structural problems within the U.S. healthcare, finance, and government systems. Combine all of this with the uncertainty in our day-to-day lives–from worrying when we’ll get vaccinated to whether we can pay rent—and it’s not hard to see why people are looking for answers beyond the physical world.
For Millennials, who have long been disillusioned with mainstream religion, that means searching for alternatives. “We’re living in a moment similar to the 1970s wave of astro pop culture,” says Chani Nicholas, an astrologer and New York Times bestselling author of You Were Born for This: Astrology for Radical Self-Acceptance. From the Capitol attack to the #MeToo movement, the past several years have been turbulent, to say the least. The seventies were similarly tumultuous, Nicholas points out, “and throughout history, you can find that folks look to the planets when things feel overwhelming and inexplicable on Earth.” It’s a way of feeling in control when so much is out of control.
But it’s not just about the comfort of control. In the Trump era, mysticism also became a tool for resistance. In 2018, the Witches vs Patriarchy subreddit was born, a group dedicated to dismantling patriarchy through pagan mysticism, which now boasts over 250,000 members. That same year, witches gathered in protest at an immigration detention center. During the 2020 presidential election, Michael Hughes, author of Magic for the Resistance: Rituals and Spells for Change, organized a mass ritual, which was basically a prayer and meditation to dismantle the “Divided Kingdom of Trumpistan.”
There are other ways in which mysticism can be politicized. For example, because mysticism is so earth-centered, it tends to fit with more progressive narratives, argues Mark Horn, a tarot card reader in New York. “There’s climate change, for example. Taking care of the earth is a deeply spiritual project,” he says. “This might also make it appealing to younger generations.”
For many, spirituality is a way to reclaim identity. “Healing modalities like tarot, reiki, astrology—these are ancestral practices that were used for healing before spirituality was colonized into religion,” says Satya Asad, founder of Black Women Healing Retreats. “Religion teaches you to follow a leader,” Asad says. “Spirituality teaches you that freedom and healing is your birthright.” Her retreat takes place in Jamaica and Costa Rica where visitors attend yoga and meditation sessions, along with workshops that bend toward spiritual practices like energy cleansing and chakra clearing, a meditative ritual meant to restore emotional balance.
Asad points out that many traditions originated in West Africa but were lost or watered down due to colonization and slavery. Some West African religious practices include offerings of incense and food to an altar of deities, ritual healing with herbal medicines, and using charms as a form of protection. Some hoodoo practices descend from West African faiths and remain prominent in deeply diasporic places like New Orleans or the Mississippi Valley. Reincarnation is a crucial element in many of these practices, as is a deep connection to the earth. For some groups in the U.S., returning to these practices is a form of resistance in and of itself.
It’s a way of feeling in control when so much is out of control.
It’s dismissive to chalk mysticism up to a trend when, for so many, it’s a path to healing. Alex McCormic, a tarot reader in Los Angeles, had always used spiritual rituals to shake bad habits, like drinking too much. But like Reed-Clark, she’s ramped up these practices since the pandemic began. “When I was having anxious nightmares about the future, I’d put my obsidian crystal ball by my bedside,” she says. The idea is that crystals have vibrational properties that help with healing by acting as a magnet to absorb negative energy—a belief traced back to ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and India as well as ancient Greece and Rome. And for McCormic, it worked. “When I did this, the nightmares would subside,” she says.
She also used a pendulum: a chain connected to crystals, wood, or glass that’s used as a spiritual tool for finding answers to yes or no questions. You can “program” the pendulum by establishing that a back and forth swing means “yes” and a left to right swing means “no,” for instance. Recently, McCormic lost touch with a family member she worried had contracted COVID-19. “After texting, calling, and emailing them for weeks, I asked the pendulum if they were okay and if they’d reach out to me soon,” she says, “The pendulum said yes. I trusted that was the case, and three days later they called me saying they were okay.” Sure, there was a 50-50 shot that the pendulum would be wrong —fairly high odds for anything. But it calmed McCormic in the moment, which is perhaps the real purpose of any of these rituals.
Of course, there’s a darker side to all of this: the hyper-consumerist, GOOPified wellness trend that makes potentially dangerous claims while leaning into cultural appropriation. Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness brand, Goop, was fined $145,000 for endorsing crystal eggs that were meant to be inserted in the vagina to cure bladder control issues and hormone imbalances. Sephora’s “starter witch kit” was removed after backlash from practicing witches who believed it appropriated their spirituality for commercial purposes. Workers who mine for gems to supply the growing crystal market often face deadly conditions. The wellness industry, which is worth $4.2 trillion, can feel like what Horn calls “spiritual bypassing,” the tendency to use spiritual practices in a superficial way, without actually resolving emotional issues or psychological wounds. “You join some group and learn to meditate and all of the sudden you’re walking around in this pink fuzzy cloud,” Horn says. “And rather than use spirituality to get to difficult places, you’re using it as a way to buffer against those difficult places.”
Let’s be clear: spirituality isn’t a replacement for therapy. Horn recommends using tarot, or any kind of spiritual practice, in tandem with therapy. For Horn, tarot is a tool to help clients explore issues they’re struggling with subconsciously. “Tarot cards aren’t about telling you what’s going to happen next, they’re about clarifying what’s happening now,” he says. Tarot can offer information about your subconscious issues; therapy helps you work through them.
Reed-Clark sees a therapist regularly and meets with a psychic twice a year. She also practices reiki, a type of alternative medicine in which a “universal energy” is said to be passed from the practitioner to the patient in order to heal anything from emotional trauma to back pain Reed-Clark looks to her dreams for spiritual guidance as well, and says they’re often prophetic. “Sometimes in my dreams, I’ll see visions of questions I have related to jobs, friendships, break-ups,” she says. “If I’m at a fork in the road, I’ll often have a dream telling me the outcome.” While her dreams do seem prophetic at times—when she was single, she accurately dreamed she’d meet her husband in exactly two years—spirituality mostly gives context to her existing problems that are hard to define. And again, it makes her feel better.
And it works. There’s a surprising amount of evidence pointing to the usefulness of spirituality during distressing times. A 2013 study from Harvard Business School found that rituals can help reduce anxiety and grief, helping people perform better on tasks and bounce back from mistakes. Even if your morning tarot session doesn’t uncover some profound subconscious issue, the ritual itself can put you in a calmer state of mind.
Tarot can offer information about your subconscious issues; therapy helps you work through them.
Detractors will say that mysticism is a silly, illogical way to navigate the world—if healing crystals worked, we’d all be floating on a cloud. But the problem with throwing out something entirely because it doesn’t work the way you think it should, is that you miss out on all the ways it works really well. “My own sense is that this isn’t a fad,” says Dr. Sheldon Solomon, a researcher and social psychologist at Skidmore College. “It’s a generational shift in existential considerations.” For many, mysticism doesn’t just promise a sense of comfort. It offers what few ideologies can: openness, acceptance, and—perhaps most important—a glimmer of hope.